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All together now

The face of local government is changing rapidly, with challenges aplenty on the horizon. Antony Oliver reports.

The strength of local government is largely dependent on the strength and depth of its infrastructure planning strategy. Get it wrong and you face decades of cost and social problems. Get it right and the community thrives.

But when it comes to local infrastructure planning, the world is changing radically. It has to.

Since the concept of planning legislation started in the highly agricultural 1700s our demands on land and resources have spiralled. From that point on our lives - and as built environment professionals, our aspirations - have increasingly been tied up with, and dependent upon, ever increasing amounts of legislation and guidance.

The most recent changes came about, of course, in 2004 with the introduction of regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks, which virtually overnight replaced regional planning, the old county structure plans and local plans.

The result sends a very clear message. No longer can we afford to restrict our thinking to traditional department silos.

While planning guidance has always aimed to help achieve balance, society demands a much more holistic approach.

It is neither possible nor desirable to plan new housing development, for example, without considering the impact on road and transport links, on water and sewerage supply, on healthcare and school provision.

It is no longer acceptable to plan a road improvement scheme without assessing the needs of and costs to the community, the surrounding communities and the wider environment.

And when deciding how to deal with waste, how to provide power, how to prevent flooding, or how to improve public transport it is simply impossible to work in isolation.

The expectation today is that to consider the part we must first consider the whole.

For civil engineers and professions working to support the built and natural environment this shift in thinking towards holistic spatial planning presents many opportunities. Not least because it shows that at last the infrastructure - and the people planning and delivering it - is at last being recognised as central to community development.

It is also exciting because it will potentially break down artificial barriers and mark a return to the social ideals championed by such municipal engineering pioneers as Joseph Bazalgette.

It should be possible to look at the bigger picture and make better decisions for local communities.

But this comes with a number of challenges, in particular from the increasingly complex regional frameworks in which local government operates.

Since their creation, regional development agencies have yet to work through the planning relationship with local authorities, district councils and unitary authorities.

Ensuring that the local development frameworks fit with the regional spatial strategy will always be tough.

And having to think in terms of housing, environment, infrastructure, economic development, agriculture and waste treatment, and then dovetailing it all seamlessly to your local transport plan is certainly going to challenge even the most organised local authority.

Yet life in local government is unlikely to get any easier.

Increasingly European legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive, which has been with us since 2000 but starts to bite in 2010, will be driving many of the big decisions about where, what, how and why we develop.

The task of safeguarding and enhancing water quality and quantity is, after all, as much a farming policy issue as it is a water engineering matter.

Then there is the European Union Landfill Directive and the raft of new European legislation that will follow in the waste sector over the next few years.

All will ensure that municipal engineering decisions are not taken in isolation of the wider community.

And then there are strategic environmental assessments to deal with. It all requires new thinking and new skills.

The one thing that is consistent throughout, however, is the absolute need to take the entire community with us.

While the new planning world opens up a wealth of opportunity to radically improve lives and communities, local government professionals must ensure that they deliver what local people want and what local people need.

Bearing in mind that the cost of developing a better society will inevitably continue to rise in the future, simply presenting the public with a bill will never be the solution.

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